In the not-too-distant future, autopsies might be performed using computerized scanning rather than scalpels if research led by a Swiss forensic pathologist bears fruit.

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The “virtual autopsy” as envisioned and practiced by Dr. Michael Thali and colleagues at the University of Bern’s Institute of Forensic Medicine is a minimally invasive procedure that relies on high technology rather than sharp implements.

It offers advantages in criminal cases since bodies are not cut up and juries view computer simulations rather than photos of cadavers, said Thali, who spoke Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America.

“It does not destroy key forensic evidence,” Thali said. “Also, when you present autopsy findings in a courtroom they can be very gruesome.”

Further, he said, it makes autopsies on decomposed bodies considerably easier.

Thali said technicians use advanced computed tomography — CT scans — to get an overview of the body, then follow that up with magnetic resonance imaging for details of organs, muscles and soft tissue.

Three-dimensional surface scanning provides a picture of the outside of the body. All the images can then be merged on the computer, giving investigators a picture of the entire body that can be stored on a computer, e-mailed to others for a second opinion or even posted on a Web site, Thali said.

The technique, he said, could be used when family members feel squeamish about a traditional autopsy or their religion forbids it.

Dr. Edmund Donoghue, the Cook County medical examiner, said pathologists already use imaging technology — generally X-rays — in some cases, but he was skeptical that virtual autopsy would replace the classic autopsy anytime soon.

“This combines two very costly imaging technologies. It’s probably outside the reach of most medical examiner’s offices at the current time,” he said.

Also, he said, a full-body scan with MRI equipment takes up to three hours, and his office handles about 17 cases a day, meaning he would need several machines.

Thali said he believes both the time needed to complete a scan and the cost of the equipment will come down in the future.

Sholom Ackelsberg, general manager for global CT research and advanced applications at GE Medical Systems, said CT scanners and MRI equipment sell for between $300,000 and $2 million apiece. He predicted both falling prices and increased quality in coming years.

Thali said he and his colleagues have used the techniques for three years and 100 cases of crime victims. First they conducted a virtual autopsy, then a standard one. The results, he said, showed that the virtual autopsy is as accurate as traditional autopsies.

Eventually, he predicted, the procedure will be accepted by courts and pathologists. “It’s absolutely comparable to how DNA evidence was in the mid-1980s,” he said. “In 10 or 15 years I think it will be just as accepted.”

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